Mozambique's indigenous Khoisan hunter-gatherers were displaced two thousand years ago by West African migrants, bringing with them Iron Age technology, cattle and crops. The result was a collection of powerful tribal kingdoms scattered between the Zambezi and the Limpopo Rivers, trading with Swahili and Arab coastal settlements. Plagued by slavers, the country fell under control of the Portuguese in the early 16th century but freedom came late. Only after a bitter struggle was independence achieved in 1975, and that was followed by a devastating 17-year civil war.
Coming off virtually a zero base, the Mozambican economy has been among the fastest growing in the world. Agriculture, which employs 80% of the country's workforce and makes up around 30% of GDP, has traditionally dominated but Mozambique's economic future lies in its extensive natural resources which include huge coal reserves and the world's fourth biggest natural gas fields. The country's tourism sector is growing but still performing well below its potential.
Since the post-independence departure of some 360 000 Portuguese, Mozambique's 24 million people are overwhelmingly drawn from its black ethnic groups, the largest being the Macau and Shangaan. Nevertheless, it is the Portuguese language that dominates and around 50% of Mozambicans speak it as a first or second language, despite the 60 or so regional languages.
Traditional African religious beliefs are still strongly held in Mozambique though some 56% of Mozambicans regarding themselves as Christian (especially in the south and in cities) with a further 18% adhering to Islam, particularly in the Arabian-influenced north. Music and dance feature prominently in Mozambican culture - the famous marimba is a local instrument - while the Portuguese influence on Mozambique's spicy, Mediterranean-style cuisine will be obvious to visitors.
About three times the size of Great Britain, Mozambique is divided into two topographical regions by the Zambezi River. Northern Mozambique is a landscape of hills and low plateaus with rugged highlands in the west. Southern Mozambique is flatter due to the coastal plain which widens from north to south and accounts for almost half of the country's surface area. Away from the coast, Mozambique is very under populated and its vast open woodlands remain virtually untouched.
Most visitors to Mozambique head for the country's Indian Ocean coast. The mainland offers long stretches of palm-fringed beaches but it's the Bazaruto and Quirimbas Archipelagos that are home to classic 'desert islands' and pristine coral reefs. Several of the best dive sites in the Indian Ocean can be found here and the marine life is exceptional. Highlights include year-round diving with whale sharks and manta rays, concentrations of which peak from October to April.
Once world-renowned, Mozambique's wildlife is still recovering from decades of war but one or two big game destinations are emerging as the herds return and conservation efforts pay off. Head for the Gorongosa National Park and the Niassa Reserve for some of Southern Africa's most remote, exclusive and crowd-free game viewing.